The Home Front

Politics, culture, and American life — from the family perspective.

New Studies on Delaying Gratification Reveal Interesting Results


Perhaps you heard of the simple study that a Stanford researcher performed in 1972 testing the ability of children to delay gratification. Test subjects had a marshmallow (or other treat) placed in from of them, and they were told they could have two treats if they waited for the researcher to return. Follow-up studies on the test subjects seemed to indicate that the children who could wait longer went on to lead better lives in many ways, from having higher SAT scores and getting a better education to having a lower body-mass index.

But new studies suggest that it’s not always about self-control. Sometimes an individual will make an impulsive move based on strategic reasoning.

The ability to delay gratification has traditionally been seen in large part as an issue of willpower: Do you have what it takes to wait it out, to choose a later — and, presumably, better — reward over an immediate, though not quite as good one? Can you forgo a brownie in service of the larger reward of losing weight, give up ready cash in favor of a later investment payoff? 

When we set a self-control goal for ourselves, we often have specific time frames in mind: I’ll lose a pound a week; a month from now, I’ll no longer get cravings for that cigarette; the bus or train will come in 10 minutes . . . But what happens if our initial estimate is off? The more time passes without the expected reward — it’s been 20 minutes and still nothing; I’ve been dieting for a week and a half now and still weigh the same — the more uncertain the end becomes. Will I ever get my reward? . . . In this situation, giving up can be a natural — indeed, a rational — response to a time frame that wasn’t properly framed to begin with.

In new testing, with added parameters, researchers found that people often think that the longer they wait, the longer they will have to continue to wait for their reward — which seems the opposite of the logical conclusion that the longer you wait, the closer you are to getting it. So some children might not simply have bad impulse control, but a poor ability to gauge the passage of time.

The article goes on to describe other facets of the studies, and then offers this advice. 

For those of us battling with goals we just can’t seem to reach, the knowledge that our perception of time — and not some inherent shortcoming — is partly to blame may enable us to be more successful in the future. Instead of beating ourselves up for a failure of willpower, we can instead focus on learning to better calibrate our time expectations from the get-go, setting realistic, concretely framed time goals that capture the reality of the task we’ve set for ourselves.

This has made me see my children’s (and my own) ability to set goals and delay gratification in a new light. Read more here


Subscribe to National Review